July 29

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, pats House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, on the back during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. (Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg)

Today John Boehner declared that any talk of Republicans impeaching President Obama is a sinister plot originating in the White House, from which so many other sinister plots have come. “It’s all a scam started by Democrats at the White House,” he said. “This whole talk about impeachment is coming from the president’s own staff and coming from Democrats on Capitol Hill. Why? Because they’re trying to rally their own people to give money and show up in this year’s elections.” Which is partially true. Democrats do want to talk about impeachment, and it does help them raise money (though while an actual impeachment would certainly get Democratic voters to the polls in November, it’s much less likely that just talking about it will do so). But that’s only part of the story.

Boehner and other Republican leaders are now trying to walk an impossible tightrope. On one hand, they’re arguing that they have no interest in impeaching the president — they know that it would be a political catastrophe if they did — and any suggestion to the contrary is nothing but Democratic calumny. On the other hand, they’re arguing that Obama is a lawless tyrant who is trampling on the Constitution. If that contradiction has put them in a difficult situation, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Like so many of their problems, this one has its roots in the uncontrollable Tea Party beast that they nurtured but can’t control. It’s true that the only prominent Republicans explicitly calling for impeachment are ones like Michele Bachmann, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), or Sarah Palin. But you can see the quandary in people like Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was on Fox News Sunday this week, and when Chris Wallace tried to pin him down to say that Republicans wouldn’t impeachment Obama, Scalise wouldn’t do it.

It’s probably because Scalise knows that impeachment isn’t supported just by his party’s fringe. According to a YouGov poll taken earlier this month, 89 percent of Republicans think “Barack Obama has exceeded the limits of authority granted a President by the US Constitution,” and 68 percent think there is “justification for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against President Obama at this time.” Even when given a number of options including “President Obama has abused his powers as president which rise to the level of impeachable offenses under the Constitution, but he should not be impeached,” 63 percent still said he ought to be impeached. A CNN poll found a smaller number of Republicans saying Obama should be impeached, but still a majority of 57 percent.

So the idea that Boehner characterizes as a crazy Democratic slander is the majority position among Republican voters. And they didn’t get the idea from nowhere. They got it because the people they trust — Republican politicians and conservative media figures — have been telling them for years, but with particularly ferocity in the last few months, that Barack Obama is a lawless tyrant who is trampling on the Constitution. They’ve been hearing this not just from the Sean Hannitys and Steve Kings of the world, but from every Republican, up to and including the GOP congressional leadership, on a daily basis. Of course those Republican voters think he should be impeached. It’s absurd for people like Boehner to turn around and say, “Whoa now, who’s thinking of impeachment? That’s just Democrats saying that.”

And consider the odd situation in which that leaves the President. As much as he has been under attack from Republicans over executive authority, he has a political incentive to bait Republicans into talking more about impeachment, which would both build pressure for it within the GOP and force them to deny it to the media. The best way for him to do so is to take more unilateral action on issues like immigration. That would incense Republicans, who would then rush to the cameras to decry his lawlessness, which would lead journalists to ask them whether they’re going to impeach him, which would lead them to tie themselves in knots denying it. Obama would get both the policy results he wants and the political benefit of making his opponents look like they’re about to drag the country into a repeat of the farce of 1998.

So yes, the talk of impeachment is in part a plot by the White House. But they’re only exploiting the pressure that exists within the GOP — pressure that John Boehner and the rest of the party leadership helped create. And if you think you’ve seen Republicans squirming uncomfortably over the question up until now, just you wait.